Big Vic’s sixth sense

Ryan Vrede, writing in SA Rugby magazine, finds out what makes Victor Matfield the lineout king.

Former Wallabies coach and consultant to the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks, Eddie Jones, still has an incredulous expression when he recounts the story of the first experience he had with Victor Matfield in a coaching capacity.

The discussion, at a pre-World Cup camp in Cape Town, centred on attacking and defensive lineout formations. Jones had heard about Matfield’s meticulous attention to detail from his discussions with Daniel Vickerman – the second rower who he coached at the Brumbies and Wallabies, and whom Matfield rates as one of the best locks of his generation – and Jake White. But he wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen.

‘We were speaking about how best to use the lineout as an attacking platform, and I was running through a couple of plays that had been successful for me at times during my career with the Brumbies,’ says Jones.

‘Victor was watching so intently, and it seemed like a recorder was running in his mind. I’m sure if I’d asked him to repeat what I said at that time he would have done so verbatim, mate. After he’d stored what I said in one of his thousands of files, he strolled over and said, “Eddie, what about that play you guys ran for the Brumbies in 2000? You know, the eight-man lineout?”

‘Mate, he proceeded to describe the play down to the finest detail. He’d obviously dissected it thoroughly and knew how and why it could work for the Springboks. He even had ideas about how the play could be improved!

‘I stood there absolutely amazed. I’d heard that he was pretty deliberate about his preparation, but this was something else. I think he only debuted in Super Rugby that year [2000], but he’d been studying Super Rugby plays while he was just a provincial player. That blew my mind. Jake told me he was special before I was invited to coach with the Boks, but that incident – as simple as it may seem to some – perfectly underlined his immense value to the Boks and showed me first-hand exactly why he is held in such high regard.’

When Matfield debuted for the Springboks in 2001 as a 24-year-old, he was a talented lock clocking in the flying hours, but hardly a dominating force. Eight years later and he rules the air in a manner no other second rower has, and will, for some time.

He has single-handedly revolutionised lineout play.

Assertions like that shouldn’t be made without careful consideration, and attributing greatness to players needs to be done in a thoughtful manner and with thorough analyses – not only of their achievements and milestones, but also of whether they’ve evolved their chosen code in telling ways and had a galvanising influence on those they play with and against.

Tiger Woods, through his unparalleled brilliance, lifted the collective standard of his competitors and redefined the term ‘great’ in golf. Michael Jordan had the same impact on basketball, as did Michael Schumacher on Formula One. Matfield should not feel like an impostor in that illustrious company.

The rugby landscape is littered with artists in No 5 jerseys. Matfield stands alone as a scientist. Where others have done what’s expected in the pursuit of improvement, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to suggest that Matfield has dedicated his life to the pursuit of excellence. He is without peer – certainly when it comes to his extraordinary prowess in the lineouts – and possesses a presence that can reduce even the most sure-handed hooker to someone resembling a tanked-up darts player.

He infiltrates his opponents’ psyche and you often get the sense that he forces them to beat themselves mentally before a lineout has even been fed or collected. What we witness on a Saturday is simply the culling of already wounded prey.

All Blacks forwards coach Steve Hansen took exception to the liberal praise being heaped on Matfield prior to the decisive Tri-Nations Test in Hamilton.

‘I don’t think playing against Matfield is any different to playing against anybody else,’ barked Hansen when asked of Matfield’s ability. ‘I think we are starting to build this guy into something he’s not. He’s just another human being.’

That Saturday evening Hansen would have been reflecting on the impetuosity of that offering, while Matfield – having decimated Hansen’s lineout – was drinking beer out of the Tri-Nations trophy.

‘With all due respect, Vic has an understanding of lineout play as good as, or even better, than any coach in world rugby at present,’ begins Gary Gold, the Springbok forwards coach. ‘There are very few, and I’d even suggest no coaches, who can outsmart him in that area because he’s mastered it in understanding and execution.

‘He works from the premise that you simply can’t mark everywhere in a lineout, and where he is superb is in identifying those areas and finding space to collect the ball cleanly, or predicting which space his opponents will identify.

‘He has such a powerful sense – a sixth sense for lack of a better term – about where the space is on his ball and the opposition’s feeds. That sense is honed and refined by his unrelenting work ethic around the lineouts. He spends hours in front of a computer analysing his opponents and plotting their downfall, so I’m not surprised when you tell me that he remembers a move the Brumbies ran in 2000. He could probably rattle off a hundred moves like that.

‘By way of example of just how good this guy is, he may not always target his direct opponent, but instead identifies a weakness in their lifters, or in one of their pods that will be central to a drive following the collection of the feed. That’s how much value he adds to that facet of our play.

‘He has a very simple methodology about what he does, but the quality of preparation and execution is what sets him apart. He is a phenomenal player, light years ahead of any No 5 lock of his generation. Perhaps any generation.’

Jones has coached some of the better locks of the modern era and reinforces Gold’s view.

‘The only guys who are comparable are John Eales, David Giffin and Steve Borthwick, but none are as complete as Matfield,’ he says. ‘Eales was a superb lock but not a lineout leader; Giffin and Borthwick were very good lineout leaders but lacked Victor’s athleticism.

‘When you’re looking for the perfect prototype of a modern No 5 lock, you don’t need to look any further than Matfield. He has everything, and he seems to keep getting better year after year.’

Matfield, predictably, plays down the plaudits. He detests speaking about himself and his prodigious ability, but when probed for a response, reveals some of the secrets to his sustained success.

‘Preparation is key. If you go into a Test feeling like you’re better prepared than your opponent, you already have an edge and are able to adapt quicker if they try something different. In Test rugby that counts for a lot,’ Matfield explains. ‘I look at different things to help me get a jump on the guys I’m up against – a trigger movement, or sometimes you can tell by looking in their eyes who the receiver is. There are various ways of working out where the hooker is aiming.

‘You also have to study people and understand how they react under pressure. Some hookers and their lineout leaders are very good under pressure and will continue to vary their throws even if I’ve picked off one or two. Others have a banker when they are under pressure, and if you know what that banker is, you’re able to compound the pressure on them.

‘That comes from being a student of the game and understanding that you’re competing against human beings with vulnerabilities and flaws. So, my analysis is not only on the surface level. I’d like to think I’m a pretty good student of human behaviour.’

Two years ago I met Matfield in his home in Carqueiranne, Toulon, in the south of France. He was three months into a contract that was paying so handsomely he could sustain a small country. He had a three-storey villa overlooking the Mediterranean and was being afforded the opportunity to spend more time with his wife and daughter than he had been at any stage of his career.

He’d won every major trophy there was to win in the southern hemisphere. Logic suggested that he stay and ride the cash cow into the sunset. But instead he told me about the emptiness he felt without the Bulls and Springboks. About the competitive fire that still burnt, a fire that the French second division was unable to douse. He wanted to come home and taste more success on the domestic and international front.

Which he did, captaining the Springboks in their drought-breaking victory in Dunedin in 2008, then winning a second Super 14 crown with the Bulls in 2009, lashing the British & Irish Lions and capping a wonderful year by playing a central role in the Springboks’ Tri-Nations triumph. He has also became the most capped lock in Springbok history (89), has surpassed Mark Andrews’s record for the most consecutive Tests for a lock (22), and has faced the All Blacks more times than any other Springbok (20).

Still, Matfield is not satisfied.

‘I’m still hungry for success. It’s addictive in that the more you have of it, the more you want it,’ he says. ‘The greatest sportsmen and -women are those who’ve been able to replicate success year after year. The challenge when you win a title for the first time is to overcome the mental barrier to success. When you do, your self-belief grows, but then the next challenge is to constantly evolve to stay ahead of the pack.

‘That is stimulating in itself, because it forces you to push yourself to levels you don’t even know you’re capable of, in an attempt to experience that feeling of success again. Then it happens and you’re like, “OK, what now? How do we get better, because we know they’re going to come harder next year.”

‘That’s why defending the World Cup is one of my goals. I’ll need to make it there first, hopefully I can stay fit, and if I do I’ll relish the challenge.

‘We believed we could win the 2007 World Cup, but the All Blacks were heavy favourites, and rightly so. It was good flying under the radar and then winning, but everyone will be gunning for us in New Zealand in 2011. I’ve never experienced that before and I want to be part of a team who win the World Cup under that sort of pressure.

‘I could easily have just hung up my boots at the end of 2007 or stayed in France, and I would have been fairly satisfied with what I’d achieved. But that wouldn’t have been the brave option.

SARU1009cv001‘I didn’t want to be left wondering what it would have been like to be part of a Springbok side who defend the World Cup, or indeed a Bulls side who win back-to-back Super 14 titles.

‘I want to know that I gave it a shot, and even if it doesn’t work out I know I’ll have no regrets.’

By Ryan Vrede

– This article first appeared in the October issue of SA Rugby magazine